Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry Goettingen

New insights of living cells

In conversation with Prof. Stefan Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen.

Nobel Prize for high resolution microscopy

In 2014, Professor Dr. Dr. h.c. mult. Stefan W. Hell, with American scientists Eric Betzig and William Moerner, received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their development of high-resolution fluorescence microscopy. This has created the prerequisite conditions for understanding cell mechanisms critical for futher medical research.

Professor Hell, your work in developing high resolution fluorescence microscopy brought you the Nobel Prize – and refuted a hundred-year-old principle of physics. When did you sense that your discovery would be a milestone in scientific research?

One couldn’t pin that down to a certain moment; it evolved over several years. The first intimation that high resolution microscopy would prove important, at least academically, was back in 1994 when the idea of STED microscopy occurred to me. This hunch got stronger in the years 2000-2005 when it became clear first, that it would work and second, that it was just the start of a major and irreversible scientific development. Also in 2005, the first applications in life sciences were undertaken, and that further reiterated the significance of high resolution microscopy.

Architektur der Kernpore in einem intakten Zellkern, abgebildet im beugungsbegrenzten Konfokalmikroskop (links unten) und im STED-“Nanoskop“.
Architecture of the nuclear pores of intact cell cores, seen through a diffraction-limited confocal microscope (below, left) and in the STED 'Nanoscope'

What's needed now for your process to be widely applied?

First and foremost, worldwide commercial distribution at a reasonable price. That would automatically enable scientists to make discoveries in their own fields of study.

Are you already aware of the first applications, for example in medicine, that have furthered research into disease or its healing?

It’s still too early for that, because first high resolution microscopy just makes it easier to understand the mechanisms. But fundamental understanding of the mechanism is the precondition for subsequent real medical breakthroughs. There are already very good examples of some fascinating discoveries.

Professor Hell, you’ve set up two companies in Göttingen, Abberior and Abberior Instruments. What were the biggest challenges in starting these enterprises?

To choose the right moment. You shouldn’t be too hasty or you’ll crash, even with the right idea, but also not too late, when the market is already occupied or even saturated. Furthermore, every technology has its day; sooner or later even good ideas are outdated and supplanted by better ones.

STED-Nanoskopie im Gehirn einer lebenden Maus.
STED nanoscopy in the brain of a live mouse

What, in your view, is needed for exceptional research findings to become viable commercial concepts? And what conditions do enterprises need to prosper at a business location?

A commercial concept is viable when the company solves a real human problem or meets a real human need. And ideally this company does this in a unique, unsurpassed manner – that’s the precondition for any successful concept. Growth factors at a business location; above all access to the best possible staff, for instance excellently trained school and university graduates who are keen to develop, personally and professionally, with this enterprise.

Professor Hell, you’ve opened a branch in the USA. What were the tense moments of this start-up? How do you assess the American market for your products? And are other markets interesting for you?

That wasn’t me, but Abberior Instruments GmbH, of which I’m a shareholder; it set up a US subsidiary to gain access to the large and very demanding US market. Moreover, it’s advantageous to have a subsidiary that’s anchored in the American legal system. I’m sure Asia, above all China and Japan, would also be very interesting markets.

In which areas will you be concentrating your research in future?

We’re nowhere near finished with high resolution microscopy. On the contrary: I have a feeling that it’s only just beginning …

Professor Hell, many thanks for this interview.

Professor Stefan Hell

  • Since 1991, research in optical microscopy with refraction-unlimited resolution
  • Since 2002 director and scientific fellow of the Max Planck  Institute for Biophysical Chemistry
  • Since 2016 director and scientific fellow of the Max Planck  Institute for Medical Research, Heidelberg
  • 2014 Nobel Prize for Chemistry
  • Quote: "Aim high, stay grounded."

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